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The Self-Publishers Guide to ISBNs

Posted on: March 3rd, 2016 by Publisher Services

ISBN identification is the link connecting book-sellers and readers access to essential book information. Quite simply, if an author desires to make their book available to commercial markets, they must assign an ISBN to each of their titles.


Key Points:

  1. The ISBN system is a global standard. ISBN identification is used world-wide as a unique identifier for books and is utilized to simplify distribution and purchase of books throughout the global supply chain.
  2. ISBNs are the key to book stores inventory system. Without an ISBN, a book will not be found in most book stores or online marketplaces.
  3. Identifying a book with an ISBN improves the chance it will be discovered. A critical component to purchasing an ISBN is uploading title data through our portal. All book information is dynamically sent to Bowker’s Books in Print database. Inclusion in this database opens up a world of discovery because your book will be listed with many retailers, libraries, as well as online services like Google Books, Apple’s iBooks, and the New York Times.

Over 100 million people access this data when searching for books; and it all starts with assigning an ISBN to your book.


What happens if an author doesn’t assign an ISBN to a book?

There are no legal requirements mandating every book MUST have an ISBN.  Booksellers, libraries, wholesalers and distributors are the organizations which require books to carry an ISBN because their sales and back office systems are based on the ISBN system. One common misunderstanding is that ISBN conveys ownership and copyright protection.  The copyright laws are not tied to the ISBN system.  The idea that an ISBN conveys ownership is entirely based on how a bookseller or wholesaler has set up their internal system.  If a self-published author is solely selling their book in-person or on their own website, ISBN identification is not mandatory. Many self-publishers still opt to include an ISBN just in case they expand their selling strategy.

Some booksellers, such as CreateSpace, allow their publishers to use a “CreateSpace ISBN”, which can ONLY be used on their site.  If the publisher desires to sell on other marketplaces, they should get an ISBN through Bowker or our Publisher Package. This offering provides an ISBN assignment tied to the self-publisher and can be used in all marketplaces worldwide.


Obtaining ISBNs

ISBNs can be purchased directly from the ISBN Agency or authorized agents, such as Publisher Services. .  Self-publishers who offer books in multiple formats (hardback, paperback, ebook, audiobook) need to assign unique ISBNs to each format. The ISBN is simply a 13-digit identifier representing a title in a particular format.  The real data behind the ISBN is the metadata.  The US ISBN Agency and Publisher Services have title management portals which allow self-publisher to add/edit their book information.  The metadata can include all the details about a book and is used for both book discovery and backend traceability.


Publisher Services is an authorized agent of the US ISBN Agency and provides immediate and genuine ISBN assignments. Since 2004, Publisher Services has assisted over 40,000 self-publishers with ISBNs and barcodes.